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Prefab Icon: Dome of Discovery by Ralph Tubbs

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The Doomed Dome
With a life span of just 11 months, the prefabricated 1951 Dome of Discovery, designed by architect Ralph Tubbs for the Festival of Britain, lives on as a lost cultural icon.
London's no-longer-extant Dome of Discovery welcomed some eight million visitors during the Festival of Britain in 1951. Photo courtesy CHELSEA Space.

There are certain lost buildings that still resound through the decades. One of Britain’s most famous lost glories is Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851 and destroyed decades later by fire in 1936. Another, the Dome of Discovery—built for the Festival of Britain, a postwar celebration of design and culture—was created on London’s South Bank exactly 100 years after the birth of the Crystal Palace.

An extraordinary flying saucer of a building, the dome hovered alongside the waters of the River Thames. It was fresh, original, and engaging—like the optimistic new Festival of Britain itself—and spoke inexorably of modernity. A key part of an escapist extravaganza, encouraged by the Labour government of Clement Attlee, the five-month festival celebrated Britain’s past, present, and future while offering a glorious chance to forget the pain of World War II and the ongoing burden of austerity and rationing.

The dome was designed by architect Ralph Tubbs, who worked with the celebrated modernist pioneer Ernö Goldfinger before starting his own practice. A high school sports injury ruled him out of active military service during the war, but he served in the Night Watch unit that helped protect St. Paul’s Cathedral. The famed church’s dome was one of the inspirations for Tubbs’s festival building, with its enormous and all-encompassing roof, which measured 365 feet across.

At the time of completion (workmen rivet panels onto the roof), the 365-foot span (also the height of St. Paul's Cathedral) made it the largest dome on the planet. Photo courtesy CHELSEA Space.

Built using an innovative, prefabricated aluminum-and-steel frame, the Dome of Discovery was coated with aluminum plates that rested on concrete foundations and buttresses. Ralph’s Tub, as some called it, held a series of discovery zones, including sections on the sea, the living world, the polar regions, the sky, and outer space.

Despite the great success of the festival, which was visited by eight million people, the futuristic dome and many other neighboring buildings were soon torn down by the new Conservative government and the materials were sold for scrap. Ralph’s Tub had captured the public imagination yet lasted less than a year.

“I don’t think anyone really had a chance to stand up for the dome,” says its creator’s son, Jonathan Tubbs, also an architect. “An early autocratic decision was made and the next thing you know, it’s gone. It was sent to the knacker’s yard before they even realized that they had a well-built masterpiece on their hands.”

But the spirit and reach of the dome has lived on. It was a key influence for Richard Rogers when he designed the Millennium Dome—now the O2 Arena and a prime concert venue—in Greenwich. “The innovative, expressive engineering spirit of all the structures at the Festival of Britain, from the big span of the Dome of Discovery to the elegance of the Skylon [a space-age tower near the dome], was pure magic to me,” says Mike Davies, the project director on the Millennium Dome. “There had been no other structure like Ralph Tubbs’s dome, yet it was still rooted in the great engineering tradition of Britain.” —Dominic Bradbury

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